When UK farmers found themselves short-staffed due to Covid-19 travel restrictions, the government launched a campaign urging the public to cover the shortfall and “Pick for Britain”.
With the recruitment campaign struggling to convert applicants into farm workers and Brexit already disrupting the supply of staff, growers are turning to robotic harvesters as a long-term solution to the labour gap.
But while promising prototypes are being tested, farmers still need a reliable harvesting workforce because so much of their capital is invested in the earth.
“As soon as your crops are planted, your cash is in the ground and you have got to get it back. If you do not, you face disaster,” says Simon Pearson, director of the University of Lincoln’s Institute of Agri-Food Technology.
Already some growers are changing their planting habits to account for the labour risk. Pollybell, a 5,000-acre mixed organic farm near Doncaster in the north of England, ceased producing tenderstem broccoli this year because it could not guarantee it could recruit the 50 people needed to harvest the high-value crop.